Malcolm Gladwell finds his faith

Over at The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner reports (surprisingly neutrally) on an interview between unlikely twins, the unctuous Malcom Gladwell and the odious Glenn Beck, who met on Beck’s show for a conversation.  As Chotiner reports, Gladwell is flogging his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (see the Guardian review here).  I haven’t yet read the book, but it’s apparently how the supposedly “weak” can overturn the “strong” by concentrating on their weak points. In other words, a morality tale for Generation Y.

As the reader who sent me the NR link noted, “Please watch this video and try not to gag.” I was successful in watching it, not so successful in inhibiting the gag reflex. Listen, then, to Beck and Gladwell’s bro-fest about the wonderfulness of faith. As Gladwell notes, he was brought up in a strong tradition of faith, had drifted away, and, with this book, is returning to it.

When you watch the video, count the number of errors, lies, and misrepresentations—largely on the part of Beck.  But the constant extolling of “faith” (i.e., belief without evidence) by both men is nauseating.

Of Gladwell’s books, I’ve read only The Tipping Point, but he’s been widely criticized for using anecdotes, as he did in that book, to make general points. Readers love stories more than they love scientific analysis. In a 2009 review of Gladwell’s book What the Dog Saw, Steve Pinker, who combines anecdote and science in the right way (viz., The Better Angels of Our Nature), judges him like this:

In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.

The problem with Gladwell’s generalizations about prediction is that he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead overinterprets some of its trappings.

. . .The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.

The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.

The emphasis on anecdote (and self-help anecdote at that) over more rigorous—ergo more boring—science seems to be a theme at the New Yorker, which until recently also harbored the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer, who used the same technique. I miss the old New Yorker multipart articles that really bored in on the science. But that kind of boring must have been boring. What’s true is that Gladwell and Lehrer sell—Gladwell got at least a million-dollar advance for his book.

59 Comments

  1. Cara
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Subscribe.

    • francis
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      //

  2. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Apparently Glenn Beck thinks people will die if they don’t have faith.

    This whole interview reeks of selfimposed martyrdom and they’re talking as if they’d been persecuted for having faith.

    Hypocrits.

  3. Barry Lyons
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks for crystallizing what has always bugged me about Gladwell. I was never able to find the right word but “unctuous” is certainly applies.

    And thanks for the Pinker excerpt. I never saw that until now (just as Dennett has compiled his favorite essays and reviews into a book, I hope Pinker will do the same one day).

    • Marta
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      I’m too lazy to look for a link, but it’s worth reading the entire Pinker review. I might be mistaken, or misattributing, but I think a written dialogue ensued between Gladwell and Pinker following the review. That’s worth reading, too.

  4. Greg Esres
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Gladwell seems to have a following among the science-friendly public. He’s always struck me as a bit smug, glossing over details that didn’t conform to whatever point of view he was promoting. Bleh.

    • Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      “…glossing over details that didn’t conform to whatever point of view he was promoting.”

      Bingo.

  5. switchnode
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I’d defended Gladwell for years, on the basis that even glossy pop-science can be illuminating to laymen. This is… too much. I guess I was wrong and my friends were right. *mentally chucks books*

  6. Diana
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I haven’t exposed myself to my Malcolm Gladwell but when I watched this clip, it seems that:

    1) He sure is ambiguous. This whole “faith” concept is such an abstraction & I really couldn’t nail down what he was talking about in the Nazi-Huguenots story which he parallels with David & Goliath. The only thing I get out of these stories, one perhaps true (I haven’t read the story or confirmed its sources) one most likely pure fiction is some people got pretty lucky & I bet if you were to analyze statistically the success of people doing the same, you’d find this is not a good approach most of the time so why would you do that and therefore if these are exemplars of faith then you may want to think of a better way to achieve the same result.

    2) He appears to promote his own little “opium of the masses”. When Beck says, “I could have written this”. I presume Beck is saying that he agrees with what Gladwell but there is something else here. It is almost as if Gladwell’s theme of “it’s okay if you don’t have talent or intelligence – just have faith and work hard” and wouldn’t this seem appealing to anti-intellectuals and those riddled with a bad case of Dunning-Kruger effect?

    • darrelle
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      “I presume Beck is saying that he agrees with what Gladwell but there is something else here.”

      Yes indeed. Beck is giving props for the use by Gladwell of a tactic that he himself has employed very gainfully to bilk the unwittingly ignorant (ignorance2?)masses persecuted by the Intellectual Elite™.

      • darrelle
        Posted November 8, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        hmmm. Superscript tags no work?

        • moarscienceplz
          Posted November 8, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          “ignorance[squared]”

          Heh, very clever!

          • darrelle
            Posted November 8, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

            Alas, not clever enough to figure out how to make it display correctly!

            • Diane G.
              Posted November 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

              It’s not you, it’s WordPress.

              • Posted November 9, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

                Yeah, yeah. That’s what they all say. But thanks for trying to let him down easy, anyway.

    • Posted November 9, 2013 at 5:27 am | Permalink

      Well, what he was doing in his recount of the Nazi-Huguenots story was attributing the latters’ courage against the Nazis and their admirable humanity and wisdom to their faith. I don’t think faith had anything to do with it, but rather their respect for life. A similar thing could be said for the people running the Underground Railroad that took slaves to freedom to Canada and free states. It was all because of a sense of humanity.

      • Posted November 9, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

        Minor detail… of course it was probably because of their faith why the Huguenots bunched up in one place, like outsiders. I think if humanists were similarly bunched up, they’d have helped to save lives too. I don’t get Malcolm’s emphasis of the fact that they didn’t lie to the Nazis. Maybe they felt they had to set a good public example. A white lie to save lives would still have been a good thing to do too. But I’m just taking Malcolm’s account at face value.

      • Diana
        Posted November 9, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        Yes, I agree and thank you for not making a joke about “exposed myself to”. When I wrote it, I expected it but left it there to be the “straight man”. 😀

        • BillyJoe
          Posted November 9, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          I had to go back and was that, because obviously I missed it the first time. I must be improving.

          • BillyJoe
            Posted November 9, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

            Damn iPad self correction: I meant “I had to go back and read that etc etc”

  7. AndrewD
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Speaking of Gladwell, the readers of this Website may be interested in this website:-
    http://shameproject.com/profile/malcolm-gladwell-2/

    I will pas no comment.

    • AndrewD
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Pass no comment..Pass damn fingers

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

      Interesting! Thanks.

  8. lanceleuven
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    “we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour”

    I do. But, granted, I do get some odd looks.

  9. Diana
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    OMG that last paragraph was terrible. Let’s try again:

    He appears to promote his own little “opium of the masses”. When Beck says, “I could have written this”. I presume Beck is saying that he agrees with what Gladwell writes, but there is something else here. It is almost as if Gladwell’s theme “it’s okay if you don’t have talent or intelligence, just have faith and work hard” is meant to show that we’re all special (which really says we’re all mediocre). Wouldn’t this seem appealing to anti-intellectuals and those riddled with a bad case of Dunning-Kruger effect?

    • krzysztof1
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Working hard, yes. Faith, probably not. Every famous achiever I’ve read has stressed hard work as the main cause of their success. Some of them, the religious ones, credit their faith as well, but I’m not sure how sincere they are in that.

      • Diana
        Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I agree re: work hard but if you don’t have the ability, you aren’t going to get there only out of determination and you’re better off applying that determination to something you can do.

        • krzysztof1
          Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          Yes, and that is why it’s important to know what you’re good at and not fool yourself into thinking you’re good at other stuff that you might be very interested in, or think you can learn to do, but have no aptitude for.

          I’m still working on that!

          • Diana
            Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

            “I’m still working on that!”

            But are you *hard working* on that? 🙂

            • krzysztof1
              Posted November 8, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

              Good point! 🙂

  10. Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I remember an old post on this website taking Gladwell to task on a previous book or article. He came to defend himself in the comments and we got into it a little bit. Maybe he’ll show up again.

  11. darrelle
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Glenn Beck is quite possibly the most disgusting human being ever to (dis)grace the US TV, radio, and print media.

    His followers should be ashamed of themselves for, 1, having low enough ethical standards to comport with Beck and, 2, being gullible enough to be conned by such an obviously insincere, comedically over-the-top caricature of carnyism.

  12. Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I didn’t gag; I laughed instead.

  13. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    30 years ago there was a book tracing this kind of thinking thoughout the entire course of American history entitled “The Positive Thinkers…from Mary Baker Eddy to Oral Roberts” by Donald Meyer.

    REAL David and Goliath stories (like the ascent of the personal computer industry) involve well-grounded self-confidence and passion, which is a form of “faith” in a broad sense, but there are cases in which a secularized form of the Protestant notion of “justification by faith alone” just isn’t going to work. Without a grounding in how the real world really works, this faith is simply arrogance.

    America’s positive thinking tradition is in that sense the bastard child of Martin Luther (who I have very mixed feelings about to begin with).

    Some Davids after being victorious over Goliath turn out to be not people we wanted to succeed, notably the Scientologists.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Yep. I think it is evident that American “can-do spirit” was a big factor in all the economic success we’ve had over the last two centuries, but surely an even bigger factor was the fact that we had an entire continent full of untouched natural resources.

  14. Jim Thomerson
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I read an article in the New Yorker, don’t recall the author, which made the point that if you are David fighting Goliath, you do not win by fighting Goliath’s fight. It struck me that we are the Goliath in some situations, and are not doing well because we are fighting David’s fight.

    Goliath had no chance against an expert with a sling.

    • krzysztof1
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Gladwell writes for the New Yorker, so there’s a good chance your article was written by him. That’s the point of the introduction to the book in question, as well.

  15. moarscienceplz
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Beck’s ability to not let facts get in the way of his conclusions is just breathtaking:

    -Some Americans used faith to justify slavery, but some other Americans of faith opposed slavery, ergo faith is a good thing.

    -When you have faith, you can either go the route of Manifest Destiny and kill all your opponents, or you can love them. Only, America DID take the route of Manifest Destiny and DID kill virtually all the native peoples. But isn’t faith just so awesome!

  16. Ben S.
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    In regards to Pinker’s review, I may be one of the “egalitarian left”, but I always thought IQ was considered mostly a load of b^!!$&*t by the scientific community, e.g. S.J. Gould’s ‘The Mismeasure of Man’.

    Maybe I’ve been in my Ivory tower too long!

  17. Sastra
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite … But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” … it is demonstrably false.

    Pinker here is restating what Daniel Dennett calls the “deepity.” A deepity is word, phrase, or statement which has two meanings — one is true but trivial; the other is extraordinary but false. The surface resemblance is then traded on and the two interpretations are confused, so that the extraordinary claim gets a free ride on the back of the more reasonable interpretation.

    And that’s exactly what Gladwell (and Beck) seem to be doing with the concept of “faith.”

    What is faith? Well, it’s confidence, trust, or hope. Who can disagree that — in moderation and when appropriate — these can be good things to have? Not secular humanists.

    And every single one of the good things the religious trot out as inspired by their faith just happen to be perfectly compatible not just with humanism, but with the true-but-trivial definition of faith which is also perfectly compatible with humanism. Does Gladwell think that the little town that stood up to the Nazis could NOT have been inspired by a love for one’s fellow man?

    But then there is religious faith: a supreme confidence that either God is on your side — or you are on God’s. “Faith makes people powerful.”

    No kidding. And unlike the power of the confidence based on reason and hope, the confidence based on religion and hope can go completely off the rails and get very, very ugly. As Beck himself acknowledges — and then dismisses. Apparently we can look back and realize that THIS sort of faith is somehow not as real or true as the faith which inspires the stuff that humanists CAN approve of.

    Overweening, unshakeable confidence in magic powers and protection only looks like a good thing if it just happens to make sense — and just happens to work. This god-soaked hubris is not a great virtue and it’s not a reliable system. Gladwell and Beck might as well be exchanging stories of amazing predictions in astrology.

  18. krzysztof1
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, I just purchased the book (not at full price.) I’ve read 2 or 3 of his other books and found them fairly thought-provoking, even though I concur with what Pinker had to say. Gladwell is a good prose stylist (i.e., tells a good story), and it’s easy to get carried away by that to the point where we don’t analyze too deeply. Easy for me, at any rate. So this post serves as a valuable corrective for me!

  19. krzysztof1
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    JC:What’s true is that Gladwell and Lehrer sell—Gladwell got at least a million-dollar advance for his book.

    Me: Which has to have an effect on what an author decides to write next! Stay with what brings in the bucks!

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted November 9, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      It’s clear to me that’s all the guy is about.

  20. Eli Siegel
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely correct about The New Yorker. Beware of any science article in it that is not written by a scientist.

  21. Stephen Barnard
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Gladwell is Chopra in a tuxedo.

  22. Posted November 8, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Not a fan of that simplistic right-wing jerk-off (Gladwell, I’m speaking of).

  23. Talking Snake
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Have you noticed the text underneath the two, at approx. 1:25?
    “Atheist Richard Dawkins voices anger after airport confiscated his ‘jar of honey'”.
    That probably means he is a horrible person, or something.

  24. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    i confess to enjoying the odd article by Gladwell. But agreeing to be interviewed by Glenn Beck? It is very difficult for me to compare Beck with anyone without demonstrating the truth of Godwin’s Law.

  25. markus koebler
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    A recent reviewer called his book an ‘intellectual earworm’. Makes me think of Abba and the Bay City Rollers, enjoy if you can … I can’t

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 9, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, like you, I prefer music that also sounds complex. Abba’s music is actually quite complex but sounds simple. The sort of music that sticks in your head till you’re sick of it and can’t listen to it anymore. The Beatles music strikes me the same way.

      Music that sounds complex and has to be listened to many times to appreciate doesn’t stick in your head like that and can be appreciated even thirty years later.

      One example is Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. An underappreciated musical genius.It sucks that his voice failed and now detracts from the otherwise superb concerts.

  26. marksolock
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  27. John
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    The Economist magazine wrote a scathing review of his (Gladwell) latest book, while generally praising his earlier efforts.

    I heard sales are down, so I guess pandering to lunatics like Glen Beck might stimulate a new demographic.

    “Faith” – ha. What a concept….

  28. Diane G.
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Adding to the negative reviews mentioned so far–in the Wall Street Journal, Slate, The Economist–is this one from the NYT Book Review:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/books/review/malcolm-gladwells-david-and-goliath.html?pagewanted=1

    No wonder he’s reduced to meeting with Beck.

    (Joe Nocera, author of the NYT review, also discusses something very similar to Pinker’s “Straw We.” Which is just so perfect, BTW.)

  29. BillyJoe
    Posted November 9, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    It strikes me that interviewer and interviewee are not in the same boat but strive to appear to be so.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.  {Steven Pinker and below and from WhyEvolutionIsTrue.com […]

  2. […] glimpse at some of the things that trouble me about this clip and Gladwell’s writing — see Jerry Coyne’s take at his blog “Why Evolution Is […]

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